Creative Intersections and Collective Crossroads: Philadelphia’s Ashley Burk manages full-time work and evening freelancing, all while investigating how to better manage pressures to keep connected

Ashley Burk is the Founder and CEO of Steady Hand Creative Co., an organization that sells one-of-a-kind plant hangers and handmade art, while also conducting workshops for folks interested in learning how to make macramé and practice lettering. Ashley identifies as a life-long creator, now specializing in macramé fibre, independent design, hand painted signage and lettering.  

In addition to producing art, Ashley is also fostering transparent communities and safe spaces as the Founder of I Apologize for the Delayed Response (IAFTDR), a creative support group and event series that works with attendees to develop skills needed to better manage pressures to be on, responsive and alert, all the time, enhancing relationships with electronic communication and information sharing.

An advocate for a combination of social media truth serum and technology distancing, Ashley is rooted in and committed to accepting and delivering honesty.

We connect with Ashley to learn about her efforts to find a balance between freelancing and a day job, as well as the differing creative passions that have directed her to Steady Hand and IAFTDR.

Read our full interview now:

Ashley Burk, Founder and CEO of Steady Hand Creative Co. and IAFTDR, leads a macramé workshop outside in a grassy area, as participants around her create one-of-a-kind plant hangers. She is pictured assisting a guest with their fibre art. Photo by: Megan Khichi.
Ashley Burk, Founder and CEO of Steady Hand Creative Co. and IAFTDR, leads a macramé workshop outside in a grassy area, as participants around her create one-of-a-kind plant hangers. She is pictured assisting a guest with their fibre art. Photo by: Megan Khichi.

1. When do you think you realized you were made to make things?

From early on, I can remember creating stables for my My Little Pony out of construction paper, messing around with paper quilling and finger knitting. It’s wild to look back now and realize what it was that I was actually doing and how deeply rooted my love for creating is.

2. When did Steady Hand officially launch?

Steady Hand didn’t really have a name for a while, but it was a concept I was trying to work out from the minute I graduated college in 2010. I went to The Culinary Institute of America for Baking and Pastry Arts, and the name “Steady Hand,” comes from the compliments that my chefs in school had about my piping skills!

When I first left college, I thought I would be a cake and cookie decorator, and then, that slowly transformed into event design, (I was Eventfully Ash Design for a hot minute), hand lettering and then finally fibre art and hand painted signs. Despite it all, my “steady hand” has never changed.

3. How do you feel about the term, “small business owner?”  

I don’t think that I consider myself a small business owner. I admire the hell out of those who can and do sustain that title, but I’ve learned that I first and foremost need structure, which, being a small business owner does not often afford.

4. Have you had the opportunity to create macramé, signage and lettering, full-time?

I was full-time from 2014 to 2016. The only reason I was able to make the leap was because a good friend of mine was working for a large real estate developer and they were opening a huge retail store, sourcing only independently owned brands. She asked me if I wanted to tackle painting the signage for the shop. Over 100 hand painted signs later, I decided I could and would give the freelance creative life a shot.

For two verrrrrrry stressful years, I kept myself going off hand painted signage, large scale macramé installation commissions and macramé workshops. I truly do owe my success to the chance that wonderful friend took on me.

5. What is the difference between how you imagined entrepreneurship and freelancing to be, versus the reality of it all?

I had no idea how expensive it was just to run a business. Real life is expensive on its own, and then you add in the costs of marketing, taxes, supplies, studio rent, market fees… It did not take long for me to realize that I was going to need to diversify my offerings and be creative about where my streams of income came from, simply to stay afloat!

6. Steady Hand’s main goal is to foster a sense of community through diverse and inclusive creativity. How do you execute this strategy?

My course of action in the creative community I try to foster is to lean in on vulnerability and transparency. We are all bound by similar threads and while our experiences will of course vary, feelings of struggle, shame, hurt, love, curiosity – they’re the ties that bind. I don’t pretend to understand everything, and I cannot speak to what others encounter in their day to day lives, outside of my own, but in a space of creative practice, I know that openness bridges multiple gaps.

I’ve also seen people reach out and help strangers in the most selfless ways. I feel like those acts can transcend simply, “making things,” and have a ripple effect, leading to changed behaviours. I think people only need to encounter this once. I try to encourage this experience in all that I do, while teaching and engaging with my audiences.

7. Your visions of community over competition and creating in safe spaces are opportunities to celebrate unique perspectives, values and talent. Why is this plan the Steady Hand foundation?

Because we are all valuable tools for one another’s ultimate success. We are nothing without each other. No one person can have experiences alone and shape their world in a positive way. It’s with the help, support, guidance, love and patience of others that we survive. We all have so much to contribute.

8. How did you first learn about the importance of diversity and inclusion?

By being excluded and living in a world that lacked diversity.

Growing up in a relatively white and lower-class region of New Jersey, I always felt different. I struggled to find connections and felt as though I was grasping for something that wasn’t available to me. When I finally left my small rural hometown and began to explore my creative curiosities, there were so many roadblocks and hurdles.

I went to a culinary school, so when my interests strayed away from food and I inquired about internships with event designers and creative agencies, I was turned away. I felt as though I was burning up inside with creativity and no one wanted to give me a chance. This was before the era of Instagram and “hacking” your education, so unless you had real experience or a degree in your field of interest, you were told to look elsewhere.

What I witnessed were creatives who were so scared to lose their, “piece of the pie,” that they were unwilling to share their knowledge and experiences with anyone else who showed as much creative fervor as they did, for fear they might lend to another’s success, and reduce their own chances of prosperity. I promised myself that if I ever succeeded in a creative pursuit, I would share my experiences and lift others up in the process. It’s cliché but a rising tide truly does lift all ships.

9. Where do you go, or who do you turn to, to ensure you’re continuing to acquire and implement unique knowledge, experiences and perspectives into your work and personal lives?

Woof. I don’t know! I guess I give myself permission to walk away from my work if I’m losing sight of why I’m doing it and do something else. I’ll often dabble in a different medium to learn more about what I’m ultimately trying to bring forward. I love creating in all aspects, even if it means my next project is myself!

10. Why is it important for us to remain open to education and insights around diversity and inclusion, whether or not we own our own business or run our own brands?

We are a slow learning species. We do not invest in each other or our planet, enough, and we are showing signs of rapid decay. We need to do the work, exercise our understanding of the world and those who live in it, outside of ourselves, and we need to not masquerade the work we’re doing as part of a, “brand identity.”

Sure, I speak about inclusion in terms of my creative practice, but if I’m not taking the time to really learn what that looks like in and out of the creative world, I can’t have a true understanding of what inclusion is. We are becoming a community that easily dissociates from one other, and it’s scary.

11. Honesty is at the forefront of a lot of your work, too. You’re open on Instagram about lessons learned and projects you’ve had to put on hold. Your branding is appropriately thematic and well thought out, and it’s clear that the content you’re sharing is coming from the heart. Why do transparency and your creative process go hand in hand?

I’m kind of grossed out by perfectly curated feeds with a shallow narrative. I’m an honest person in general, and some may say to a fault. So, in speaking about social media, I think when I allow myself to be honest with my audience, my intent isn’t to sell something.

My goal is to connect with a community that may or may not share similar creative pursuits, but certainly share the same human experiences. The transparency isn’t part of my creative equation, it’s just how I make sense of the world.

12. How do you engage and embrace the ebbs and flows of said creative process? We all do it differently – how do you tackle and transform yours?

Oh man. I do not handle it well. My creativity is like a lifelong partner and when it leaves me (and thankfully, it’s only ever been a temporary departure!!), I am lost.

I’d like to say that I adapt and seek out alternative ways to be creative to coax it back, but it’s not true. When wading through the ebbs and flows of the creative process, I am pretty unstable, ha! When I am full of creative energy, it’s all I want to do. I’ll hole myself off and work on something until I’ve worked it to death. It’s like an all you can eat buffet and you never get full. I relish in it! Yet, during those times when the creativity leaves, I struggle to make sense of my own identity. It’s the only thing I’ve ever consistently had in all my life.

Now, that is not to say the ebbs and flows are always this extreme!

Today, I work a traditional 9-5 job and fit my creative pursuits in after hours. This has propelled a healthy balance that sustains my need for creating and affords me a social life with financial stability.

13. When did IAFTDR begin? What empowered you to kickstart this sister business?

This event was born out of a period in my life when my creativity had left me. I removed myself from my creative community and took a step back from Instagram. I began feeling a surplus of toxic emotions because of the surface level, sometimes superficial, engagement happening online and in real life. I felt as though my creative community, although large, was not engaging with one another in a real way.

People were curating this image of perfection and it lacked any semblance of realness. I found myself feeling less than for not having that Instagram-worthy studio space and for not getting as many likes or features from “influencers.” The more I saw this, the less I enjoyed even being a part of the community.

I knew I had to tear down the walls that people were putting up as a means of creating a, “having it all figured out,” illusion. That was the whole thing, though! People would post these beautiful photos and then say, “Fake it ‘till you make it!” and I was like, “No! Don’t fake anything. Be where you are in your process and be ok with that. Share the realness of your world, because THAT is what we connect with!”

After a lengthy radio silence on social media, I shared my feelings and thoughts. Then, there was a resounding, “YES! THIS!!!,” across the board. It was as though people had been ready for something real for so long, and I was appropriately ready to deliver.

14. Had you ever sought the resources of a creative support group, before you founded IAFTDR?

I listened to a lot of Creative Mornings podcast episodes and found those to be helpful, but I personally never attended anything like IAFTDR.

15. The name of this support group really resonates with me, because I hate unread notifications and have a hard time letting emails or messages go unanswered for more than a day. It’s all a part of my anxiety-fueled creative process. On that note, why did IAFTDR resonate with you?

The title came from the exact thing that you described as hating! When I was in that previously described creative lull, I had so many commission inquiries coming my way and I couldn’t bring myself to tackle any of them. They just sat in my inbox staring at me. I’d finally get around to answering them and all I could bring myself to say was, “I apologize for the delayed response…”

You see, this event isn’t to help folks get better at answering those unread emails, but to more productively help them sort through the feelings they may encounter when they can’t bring themselves to draft a response. Common reasons may include imposter syndrome, creative fatigue, depression, fear of failure… These are VERY real emotions and experiences, part of every creative journey, and something very few actually talk about.

IAFTDR is in place to crack those emotions open and discuss common, shared feelings. Through transparency and honesty with oneself and our peers, I believe individuals can lean on one another, connect and find resources to overcome unsettled feelings, in a more effective, productive way.

16. Why is creative fatigue something we need to talk about, more?

It’s very real. It sucks. And we all experience it.

17. What is an example of a personal experience you’ve had with creative fatigue? What do you think triggered this experience? How did you cope?

If you ever want to know what it feels like to lose a limb without chopping any of them off, tether your creative practice to an unfulfilling relationship. Then, when that relationship ends, so too will your creative spark.

Sometimes, we humans can cope with feelings temporarily by ignoring the actual problems causing the influx of emotion. We might distract ourselves with something we enjoy, like making things!! But then, we’re not actually dealing with the problem and the distraction, although fulfilling, can sustain avoidance for a long while. In fact, you might even literally build a business out of it… I did!

When I was finally able to be honest with myself, I learned and decided to do what was best for my happiness. When we lose the source of inner turmoil, we no longer need the distraction. It’s like building a tower upon quicksand.

My creativity went from its peak to its downfall in a month’s time. It was an abrupt and awakening experience. We must treat ourselves with love and respect. In turn, our creativity will do the same!

18. How have your coping mechanisms enhanced or shifted since the experience described above?

I think once I identified what I had done wrong, I decided I would never seek my creative practice as a means of escapism ever again. It’s why I don’t rely on my creativity to pay my bills anymore! I need it more for my own self-care than I do for the financial benefit.

Of course, I still sell pieces, accept commissions and teach workshops, but for the most part, the income goes towards buying more supplies to continue the craft. It’s been the best decision I’ve made for my business.

19. How do you disconnect? What have you found to be the benefits of shutting off and letting go, even if for a short period of time?

I don’t think I ever really disconnect. My creativity has become the lens through which I see everything.

I’ve seen something and taken a photo, even when it has nothing to do with fibre art or hand painted signs. Through it, I can find a narrative, an underlying current that speaks to what I do and why. It’s a confusing thing to explain but it’s almost as if, in everything I do, I feel it oozing out of me. These feelings and moments stick onto experiences, collect emotions and return to me with all this new information and inspiration.

How I convey that new information is never really all that consistent. It sometimes results in nothing extraordinary. Then, other times, I pick up my chosen medium, and when I finally step back from what I’ve worked on, I have no recollection of how I came up with the creation before me.  

20. What do you hope folks gain from the IAFTDR workshops, in addition to the lessons you’ve shared above?

I hope people gain EACH OTHER from the events. Where they once may have felt alone in something, I hope they walk away feeling supported and that they share similar emotions to others within the community. I leave the IAFTDR workshops having regained my faith in humanity! It only takes one event to remember why being alive is so wonderful.

21. Why is it so important to have a support group – for personal and/or professional endeavours?

Because the world can be a scary place if you go it alone. We are all so very scared that this, “alone path,” is the path we are on. We are not. We are in this together; all of it.

22. How many events has IAFTDR hosted, so far? When do you think your next event will be?

I moved to a new city after the third event and it’s taken me nearly seven months to get my footing in my new home of Philadelphia. I’m just about ready to relaunch the series.

23. How can our readers find out more about IAFTDR? Is there an opportunity for them to host their own, third party IAFTDR event, with your support?

My goal has always been for IAFTDR to be like Creative Mornings, where people in other cities hold their own events. I need to do more work on creating the foundation of that scope, but 2019 is young. Having taken the time to write out these responses has invigorated my drive to make this happen!

Ashley Burk, Founder and CEO of Steady Hand Creative Co. and IAFTDR, stands in a black denim skirt and a striped tank top, working on a macramé fibre art piece. Photo by: Dani Fresh.
Ashley Burk, Founder and CEO of Steady Hand Creative Co. and IAFTDR, stands and works on a macramé fibre art piece. Photo by: Dani Fresh.

Thank you, Ashley, for sharing your story with A Quarter Young. Thanks too for speaking so openly about your relationship with the creative process and the not-so-Instagram-worthy side of leading and operating a business. These experiences, as you’ve discussed, intertwine with many paths, incorporating a multitude of emotions and perspectives.

We’re happy to read that you’ve established a balance that works best for your success, as you wish to define it. 

Readers, to learn more about Ashley, Steady Hand and IAFTDR, follow along via Instagram at @SteadyHandCreative_ and @IApologizeForTheDelay or via steadyhandcreativeco.com.

The feature photo is by Cassie Castellaw.

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